If the tiny worms swimming under a microscope at the Buck Institute were human, they would be way past social security. In fact, researchers say an experimental technique is dramatically increasing their life spans.
"We found something amazing, around a 60 percent increase and in some experiments, 70 percent," researcher Silvestre Alavez said.
Alavez says the extended life span is the result of a compound called thiovflavin-t, better known in labs around the world as Basic Yellow No. 1. It is a common dye used in Alzheimer's research for decades, because it binds to damaged amyloid proteins, helping researchers identify the disease in post mortem brain tissue samples.
But Alavez wondered if the binding effect might also help slow the deterioration process in these proteins which happens with normal aging. Lab Director Gordon Lithgow agreed to test out the theory.
"And he thought if the compounds combined maybe they could alter the situation and indeed they do," Lithgow said.
"Then within a certain concentration I find a big increase in life span and that was a big moment when I said, 'Wow, that's working,'" Alavez said.
But beyond extending longevity, Lithgow believes the discovery may have an even larger impact in combating age related diseases. In a separate experiment, the compound slowed disease progression in worms bread with Alzheimer's.
"I think it really shows the potential for small molecules that maintain shapes of proteins and cells; it's really a new way to think about age related diseases," Lithgow said.
The data is encouraging enough, that they've started a round of trials in mice.
Researchers are also looking at several other small molecule compounds that bind to proteins, including curcumin, the active ingredient in a popular Indian spice.
Written and produced by Tim Didion